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Master Hands (Part IV)

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Master Hands (Part IV)

Publication date 1936
Digitizing sponsor Chevrolet Motor Company
Classic "capitalist realist" drama showing the manufacture of Chevrolets from foundry to finished vehicles. Though ostensibly a tribute to the "master hands" of the assembly line workers, it seems more of a paean to the designers of this impressive mass production system. Filmed in Flint, Michigan, just months before the United Auto Workers won union recognition with their famous sitdown strikes. Selected for the 1999 National Film Registry of "artistically, culturally, and socially significant" films.



Molten metal flowing into a mold spells out the film's title in heat and light. A full symphony orchestra plays a score adapted from Wagner's Die WalkŸre. Negative and positive film sandwiched together (a rare effect in the 1930s) casts a surreal filter over workers filing into the factory. This is high drama, pretentious filmmaking and one of the most impressive records of mass production ever made.
1936, the year that Chaplin's Modern Times and Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will were produced, was also the year of Master Hands. Produced ostensibly as a tribute to the "master hands" of the Chevrolet craftsmen, Master Hands looks much more like management's own tribute to itself -- the designers of the system of mass production.
Embodying a genre that might be called "capitalist realism," this featurette uses the representational methods of the Soviet and German cinemas to strengthen its vision of American enterprise. From Thirties Soviet socialist realism Master Hands borrows a concern for presenting masses of mobilized workers, a fascination with larger-than-life machines, and a sense of economic emergence through technology. From the Germans, and specifically from fascist representation, it appropriates the mythology of the four elements (showing how earth, air, fire and water are all part of automobile manufacturing) and adapts Wagner's music which, in its original form, portrays the foundry of the gods. Valuing intuition over interpretation, it avoids even narration except for one bit near the beginning:

"From the master hands of the toolmakers --
to the hands that master the great machines --
come the tools and patterns and dies...
and then the great factories start."

Nonetheless, its producers were documentarians enough to show something of the Flint factory's actual nature. While the machines and assembly lines are all presented heroically, the Òhuman elementÓ appears guarded, fatigued and vulnerable to accident. A long look at the faces of workers shown in the film reveals how the stresses of their jobs have made them look much older than their years. Among industrial films, it is a rare example of documentary verity, I think, an unusual instance in which truth resides in the image itself, regardless of its maker's intentions.
Strikingly, the filmmakers take pains to skirt the major issue affecting both workers and management in the Chevrolet plants -- that as Master Hands was being shot, the factories were contested territory.
Master Hands is a glimpse of the last year when management ran the plant according to its own rules. In the Central States, automobile production had recovered from its Depression slump by the mid-Thirties, and a long accumulation of grievances led auto workers to form a solid (and secret) organization. Late in 1936, Chevrolet workers, first in Flint and later throughout Michigan and the United States, "sat down" on the job, stopping production, sequestering key tools and dies, and occupying factories to enforce their demands for union recognition. This legendary strike forced the company to recognize and bargain with the United Auto Workers, which resulted in better wages, benefits and greater dignity for the workers of America's key industry.
This shift in power changed the automobile industry forever and stimulated labor solidarity and organizational activity throughout the U.S.
Later in the Thirties, it was revealed in congressional hearings that one out of every ten workers in the Flint Chevrolet plant had served G.M. as a confidential informant about union activities. It's fair, then, to assume that one out of every ten people shown in Master Hands was receiving secret payouts from the company...and who is to say how many others were secret UAW organizers?
Finally, above and beyond the fascinating circumstances surrounding its making, Master Hands is simply an amazing film. Many sequences stay in my mind: casting engine blocks in sand; the engine inspector with a long ear tube listening to the sound of piston in cylinder; the winding of red-hot springs; auto frame assemblers standing inside their machines as they work; the gigantic room filled with vehicle frames in rhythmic motion as they are assembled; the 750-ton stamping presses; and the final moment of the movie, when the hands of a tweed-jacketed suburbanite take the wheel and the car, leaving behind its dirty and tired makers, magically drives away into a country wonderland.

The Chevrolet Motor Company Presents Master Hands. Today twenty five million people are driving motor cars on the streets and highways of America. To provide this transportation over 5,060,000 skilled workers are occupied. The twenty five million drivers and their families who depend on these workers for personal transportation have little opportunity to see at work the skilled craftsmen whose master hands command the great machinery of production. But day after day this great drama goes on in the foundries and the factories and the assembly plants in which these cars are made. [main titles graphic design pouring molds molding molten metal]
From the Master Hands of the toolmakers, to the hands that master the great machines. From the tools, and patterns, and dies. And then the factories start. [special effects visual effects efx solarization solarized lemmings surrealism transitions toolmakers tool and die makers machinists precision measuring calipers]
In the Power Plants [elements fire lighting flame ignition combustion furnaces gauges hands turning wheel dials]
Power to Drive the Great Machines [flywheels energy rotation turbines electricity switches belts meters buttons Go Stop chains motors controls danger 4800 volts warnings]
In the Foundries [elements fire flame lighting steelworkers foundry]
Fire to Melt the Iron and Steel [scrap iron inferno fire flame sparks slag molten metal melting]
Sand for the Engine Molds [sandcasting elements earth dirt molding casting molders]
Molds for Cylinder Heads [smoothing]
Molds for Valve Parts [pins hands inserting tamping]
Assembling the Engine Molds
Ready for the Fiery Metal [asbestos work gloves putting on donning hand protection ladle molten metal elements fire pouring flames casting engine blocks]
The Engine Begins to Take Shape
Cooling the Cylinder Blocks [assembly lines engine blocks engines multiples]
Grinding for Smoothness [friction sparks grinders grindstones grinding wheels]
Blowing out the Molding Sand [elements air blowers wind conveyor belts]
Giant Hammers Forge the Steel [dropforging forging forges]
Shaped Under 6 Ton Blows [faces workers safety glasses spectacles eye protection hammering violence pounding hitting]
The Crankshaft
Accurately Balancing Crankshafts [multiples]
Machining and Polishing Cylinders
Checking Cylinder Size [measurement gauges gauging precision measuring cylinder blocks engine blocks tolerances]
Inspecting Pistons [measurement gauges gauging precision inspection tolerances]
Final Piston Inspection
Checking Cylinder Heads
Assembling the Engine
On Goes the Cylinder Head
Adjusting the Valves [chewing gum]
Tuning the Engine [listening devices ear trumpets hearing aids stethoscope sounds valves painting]
Welding Knee Action Cases [welders helmets eye protection]
Assembling Knee Action Parts
Grinding Steel for the Springs [grinders elements water cooling coolants]
Coiling White Hot Steel [springs helix helices bending coils grinding sparks]
Checking the Strength of the Spring [scales gauging gauges strength strain Toledo]
Assembling the Knee Action Unit [suspension rotating turning rotation wrenches tightening]
Testing Knee Action
Checking the Water-Tight Seal [testing elements water wetness submersion rocking]
Shaping Brake Drums [sheet metal stamping brakes assembly]
Riveting Brake Lining [asbestos rivets]
Assuring Brake Accuracy [asbestos brake linings]
Assembling the Brake Shoes [rivets riveting]
Adjusting the Hydraulic Control [brake shoes]
Forming Wheel Rims [sheet steel metal rolling shaping grinding sparks]
Welding the Rims
Shaping the Rims [pressure metal]
Stamping Out the Wheels [metal stamping steel sheets presses]
Shaping the Steel Spokes [metal stamping presses 600 Tons wheel assembly]
Building the Frame [hammering hammers]
Shaping the Side Members
Riveting Frame Braces
Dropping in the Cross Members [assembly lines drama]
A Foundation of Steel Girders [alienation assembly lines boredom riveting danger occupational health and safety]
And the Y-K Frame is Finished
And Onto the Assembly Line [sunlight windows cranking tightening rotation turning handkerchiefs hankies]
Where Engine and Chassis Meet [engines]
Pressing out the Fenders [sheet metal presses Lilliputians tiny people hands gloves rubbing feeling fetishism]
Welding Sheet Metal Parts [danger occupational health and safety hands faces glasses]
Forming One-Piece Turret Tops [sheet steel metal presses Lilliputians tiny people]
Steel Takes Shape Under 750 Tons
Trimming the Turret Top [scrap metal pans]
Inspecting the Finished Top [hands gloves feeling fetishism blemishes inspection chalk circles]
The Final Assembly [radiators assembly lines fenders body drop cranes windshields coordination reflections tires wheels lug nuts tightening]
Finishing Touches [inspection inspector blemishes flaws]
[class new cars country suburbia borderlands transitions magic sleeves tweeds suburbanites consumers Arcadian Arcadia exteriors outside sunlight]
[Photography: Gordon Avil. Orchestral Score: Samuel Benavie. Rendition: Detroit Philharmonic Orchestra. Film Editing: Vincent Herman. Produced by The Jam Handy Organization. The End. end titles graphic design]



Reviewer: Futuristfood - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - January 12, 2013
Subject: masterhandsisquatsi!
Reviewer: JayKay49 - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - December 31, 2012
Subject: Auto Plant in the 30's
Actually this plant is (was) in Flint, MI, not Detroit. A great look see at what goes into a basic car engine - including the tooling and die casting steps. Too bad parts of the process of assembly are not available here; it would be interesting to see. The very last scene is apparently a shot done in California as evidenced by the eucalypts lining the road...those are not found in Michigan.

This 1937 model still has some of that "Model T" look of the 20's (except for that engine) something that Chrysler Corp had pretty much done away with by this time. Stylewise framewise, and suspensionwise the '37 Plymouth was a honey compared to this product. (see one of the other clips - I don't recall the title).

This is about 15 - 20 years before Flint hit its economic peak with several huge GM complexes, after which plants were moved out or downsized, and these fellas would gradually be gettin laid off one by one til today, when nobody there works.

A Jam Handy classic - and I think one its very best productions. Not to mention, another very interesting look at life in the 1930's. Whatta find!
Reviewer: tomtweed - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - July 11, 2007
Subject: Where's the missing 5 minutes and 41 seconds?
This is a great video to watch and get some idea of what it was like to work in Detroit back then. The film length is listed in IMDB as being 33 minutes in length, the four sections listed only account for 27 minutes and 19 seconds. According to the shotlist, the material seems to be missing between the third and fourth section. The missing section would show work on the brakes, wheel rims, spokes, shaping the side members. I sure would like to see that missing footage.
Reviewer: autoguy - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - September 18, 2006
Subject: Watch you fingers!
A must see for the auto enthusiast. Film starts with firing up the boilers and generators, and production is under way. Excellent footage of engine block casting. Very interesting crankshaft forging footage. Those things were very hot, and heavy too. Great body panel and fender stamping. A frame line was extensively showcased, and cutting edge technology it was! Get a load of the guys standing between those riveting machine heads! Yikes! And yes, I too wanted to see some body line footage, oops. Great stuff from beginning to end showing massive stamping presses and the power of our heavy manufacturing. A few years after this was filmed, the Chrysler Lynch Rd plant reached a production rate of one car per minute! A fantastic showcase showing Detroit as it starts to hit full modern stride!

Make sure you get all four parts of this!
Reviewer: Spuzz - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - November 4, 2003
Subject: Off the production line we go!
Excellent montage documentary which essentially builds an automobile from scratch. We watch, as the Detroit Philharmonic plays (excellent music I might add) as it starts from the foundry, pounding out metal for the cars, to screwing on nuts, to fitting everything in place. It's also an awesome showcase of the production line, and how mind-numbing it all must have been. While I was watching this, I felt SOMEWHAT gypped that I didn't see ALL the production happen, like the main cabin of the car floats out of nowhere onto the chassis. Like, where was the production of that? That's a minor point though. See this. It's Important. A Must See on this site!
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